Detroit Marathon part of racing-rebirth for Michigan native who lost legs serving in Iraq

Detroit Marathon part of racing-rebirth for Michigan native who lost legs serving in Iraq

Provided by Associated Press

Nick Koulchar quit college when his father died and wound up scraping asbestos in abandoned buildings in Detroit. He took the work to pay for the mortgage he acquired when he lost his dad. Koulchar had a younger brother, Mike, to guide — his mother left the picture when they were toddlers — and there weren't many options for a 20-year-old community-college dropout.

The Flint-area native managed to hang on for almost four years before youth and poor decisions led to foreclosure. He needed a drastic change.

"The military seemed nice and drastic," Koulchar told the Detroit Free Press for a story published Friday.

Two years later — in September 2008 — Koulchar woke from a two-week coma at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington. His legs were gone. For the next 19 months, representatives with Achilles International's Freedom Team of Wounded Veterans tried to convince Koulchar that tackling a marathon in a hand-crank wheelchair could be a springboard to a new life. For most of those months, the wounded, heavily medicated veteran dismissed the sales pitch.

Then last winter, as his doctors dialed down the pain pills and antidepressants and antianxiety medicine, Koulchar began emerging from the haze, and agreed to try the hand-crank.

His first race was in June, through Central Park in New York City. His next race is Sunday, through the streets of Detroit and Windsor, where the 28-year-old will attempt his first marathon in the 33rd Detroit Free Press Marathon.

Thousands of people who will pursue 26.2 miles of concrete and pain, surging right alongside Koulchar, a young man rediscovering how to live again.

Koulchar was performing "route clearance" — driving slowly and looking for roadside bombs — on Aug. 25, 2008, in a Baghdad suburb known as Sadr City, hoping nothing happened and clearing the way for combat operations pulling up the rear.

Suddenly, a bomb designed to throw a directional blast exploded 30 yards from the road. Koulchar's vehicle received all the force, strong enough to penetrate the armor and pingpong within.

"I was the gunner, standing up top when it hit me in the legs," he recalled.

He tried to climb out but fell down when he shifted his weight. He saw his legs were still there, but he knew "they were done." He dragged himself out and was eventually loaded onto a helicopter.

"The last thing I remember was staring at the stars in the night sky," he said. "I was thinking of my brother."

His brother, Mike Koulchar, was preparing to start fall classes at Saginaw Valley State University. Nick had encouraged Mike to attend college, and tried to send money when he could. His own academic career fell apart when their father died in 2002, when Nick was just short of his associate's degree at Mott Community College in Flint.

He quit, took a general laborer job in Detroit ripping out asbestos in abandoned homes and old schools, and tried to make payments at his father's house in Montrose, a small community 20 miles northwest of Flint, where he and his brother had grown up. Their mother had left the family picture when they were toddlers.

Koulchar spent the next four years in a kind of aimless stupor, grieving his father's death, uncertain where he should turn. Unable to keep up the mortgage, he lost his home to foreclosure in 2006. He knew he needed a shake-up and figured the Army would provide it.

He left for basic training in Missouri before spending 11 months in Germany. In early 2008, he was sent to Kuwait for staging, then pushed into Iraq and began looking for bombs.

It's not easy when you seek out the thing that ends up tearing you apart, but Koulchar learned to digest the daily tension during the roadside bomb sweeps.

"I tell people that 95 percent of the time, you are just trying to stay alert," he said.

That other 5 percent is where a life is quickly altered — or ended. Koulchar said he understands that he was fortunate to survive the bomb that cost him his legs.

When he woke up a couple of weeks after being injured, he told the doctor standing over him at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington that he wanted to go back and finish the fight.

He knew his legs were gone. "But I didn't want to believe it," he said. "It's hard to explain."

For the rest of 2008 and most of 2009, Koulchar lived at Walter Reed, endured dozens of surgeries and took an 18-pill regimen to fight everything from infection to depression to post-traumatic stress syndrome. Much about that time is fuzzy to him. But he knows a few things: that he spent excruciating time in physical therapy, he befriended a handful of fellow soldiers also trying to learn to re-enter the world, and his brother was always at his side.

Mike left Saginaw Valley State when he got word that his brother had been injured. He met Nick at Walter Reed and was there when he awoke from the coma. He lived with him in family housing at the complex and lives with him still — the two moved to an apartment in nearby Silver Spring, Md.

The toughest part for Nick is that "it's like starting all over as a baby," he explained. "But you have this life you have already lived, so you know it can be done in an easier way — only now you can't do it."

Mike, 26, is there to help his big brother fight through that and spends most of his day with him. He is part errand-runner, part cheerleader, part chauffeur, part counselor. The brothers live on Nick's Social Security and a few dollars Mike makes moonlighting as a goodwill ambassador at a local restaurant.

Both know it won't always be this way; that Nick eventually will learn to use his prosthetic legs; that he will work again; that Mike will get back to school. That future is what helps them get up every day and get to physical therapy at Walter Reed.

Racing helps, too. After rebuffing offers from Achilles International's Freedom Team of Wounded Veterans to compete in marathons using a hand-crank wheelchair, Koulchar decided to give it a shot last winter. By June, he was racing on a 5-mile course in Central Park in New York City.

"It gave me a sense of independence," he said. "It was just outstanding."

The surge Koulchar said he felt in New York buoyed his commitment, and he began spending hours every week riding the chair or working a stationary hand-bike at Walter Reed. Eventually, he called Achilles and asked if they would help him race in the Detroit Free Press Marathon. He wanted to go home.

Koulchar, 28, spent all day Thursday riding with his brother from D.C. to Michigan.

His long-term goal is to learn to walk by next summer and move to Florida, possibly Tampa, and enroll in college. He wants to study hospitality management and open up a casual place where customers can get a good plate of food and a beer. His brother will enroll again, too, and study photography. Whether he graduates and returns to Michigan, he doesn't know — he still has cousins in the Flint area.

Koulchar's short-term goal begins Sunday morning, in the dark, on Fort and Second, surrounded by thousands of competitors. He expects his brother to be among the throng cheering him on, along with a few of his cousins and the Knapp family.

"I will try to (finish) in two hours," he said.

After that, the road is wide open.